Op-Ed: Building unity to end civic powerlessness

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

Beneath the headline-grabbing clamour about Nkandla, "spy tapes", the role
of the Public Protector and many other issues that jostle for our attention,
there is a deeper malaise - the threat to constitutional democracy and the
nation-building process.

Watching these developments, many people have a sense of powerlessness in
the face of evasion of constitutional responsibility over the Nkandla
scandal and a range of irregular actions carried out with impunity. Apart
from consequences for the rule of law, much of this thwarts efforts to
address the deep structural inequality in our society.

If he is aware of the grave implications for South Africa's constitution,
democracy and society, President Jacob Zuma has decided his personal
survival comes first and at the expense of the integrity of the office he
holds and other public institutions.

Legally, it is argued that the Public Protector cannot enforce her own
recommendations. She depends on parliament to act in good faith in ensuring
that the president is held accountable and pays back a reasonable portion of
the cost of the upgrade to his homestead.

Insofar as we have through representative democracy entrusted others to act
on our behalf, and they are not discharging their duties, are we thereby
rendered powerless? We are only powerless if we restrict our political role
to periodic voting. We need to urgently address the question of
strengthening constitutionalism through our own actions.

This brings to the fore the urgency of finding ways of uniting citizens
around issues of common concern so that legal rights that are undermined do
not rely purely on expensive litigation to find remedies. Litigation to
obtain the spy tapes incurred R10 million in expenses. That is not available
to address a range of grievances that need remedies.

When a law or a demand is supported by the power of the citizenry it is in a
different category from one that has no constituency, and enjoys no social

It is not only in cases of failure to hold parliament accountable that
constituencies need to be built in support of constitutionalism and
democracy, but also in the case of rights where organised support is weaker
than in the case of other rights. Here one thinks of the level of support
for combatting racism, compared with the far smaller lobby for the right to
freedom of sexual orientation and attempts to stop gender-based violence.

What does one mean by building unity?  How one conceives unity, and how
broadly or narrowly one defines the basis for joining or associating with a
unifying vision, will affect the character of the power that is wielded by
those who join.

If one focuses one's unifying vision on a specific doctrinal agreement, for
example socialism or liberalism, one automatically limits the extent to
which one can draw in those who are not seeking political action for
doctrinal reasons but have an interest in common action in order to remedy
what affects or potentially affects their wellbeing.

The initiative by NUMSA to form a united front could potentially be part of
a broad united movement. But it can only be that if it recognises that the
terms of engagement in such a front cannot be the same as the specific
doctrinal basis that may be the predominant political orientation of NUMSA
itself. The entire character of united front politics is dependent on a
relationship of autonomous organisations manifesting a range of political
outlooks, but joining together over issues of commonality. The ideological
differences between the organisations may diminish through cooperation but
the object of the front is not to eliminate all differences and demonstrate
agreement on a specific ideology. The aim is to coordinate all the
organisations around broadly common issues of concern.

It is important to locate the need for unity in the context of the problems
of the specific period. Unlike the moment of the UDF in the 1980s any front
that may be established now is not operating in a context of rightlessness.
The UDF united people in a situation where the constitution itself was part
of the problem. We need now to claim rights that are ours, to assert
constitutionalism, legality and the need for clean government. This is the
frontline of confrontation between any unifying force and those who violate
our rights while purporting to act in our name.

If that is correct then it means that those who have an interest in securing
legality are not purely the organised working class or even the poorest of
the poor. Those having an interest in unity behind a constitutionalist and
broad democratic programme are much wider. It may include some of the most
downtrodden and excluded, who are not organised in any way. But it may also
embrace other citizens including sections of capital who wish to secure a
climate for business.

Building on the legacy of struggle and going beyond, drawing in others who
value our democratic gains is the best possible way of ensuring
accountability, addressing inequality and protecting constitutional
democracy. It is also the most difficult and will take a painstaking
process. DM

Article by: Raymond Suttner

Article Source: The Daily Maverick